Mlungu Wam (English title: Good Madam). Directed by Jenna Cato Bass. Screenplay by Bass, Babalwa Baartman, Chumisa Cosa, Chris Gxalaba, Khanyiso Kenqa, Steve Larter, Sizwe Ginger Lubengu, Nosipho Mtebe, Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya, Sanda Shandu, Siya Sikawuti, & Peggy Tunyiswa.
Starring Chumisa Cosa, Nosipho Mtebe, Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya, Sanda Shandu, Khanyiso Kenqa, Sizwe Ginger Lubengu, Siya Sikawuti, Chris Gxalaba, & Peggy Tunyiswa.
Causeway Films / Salmira Productions
Not Rated / 92 minutes
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS!
Recognising, and trying to reconcile with, colonial histories and their destructive results has become more prominent across media in recent years, from Canada and the United States to South Africa and Australia. There remains such a long way to go for white folks. So it’s compelling to see Jenna Cato Bass, a white South African filmmaker, direct a film like Mlungu Wam, all about the experiences of Black women.
Although I’m still unsure about whether Bass should’ve been the one to tell such a story, I’m impressed by the way she’s told and framed it, using unique sound design and a Gothic haunted house-style tale to portray a Black woman grappling with legacies of colonialism and how those legacies have played out within her own family unit.
Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) is a single mother struggling to stay afloat. She and her daughter are forced to move in with her estranged mother, Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe), a domestic worker who lives and works in the home of a wealthy white lady, Diane (Jennifer Boraine). Mavis does nothing but wait on Diane, obsessed with servitude, and it upsets her daughter. Tsidi believes something unsettling is happening in that house, but that place starts to get a grip on her. She fights against the Gothic terrors of Diane’s home, to save herself and the soul of her entire family.
At first, Mlungu Wam might feel confusing because the sound design is a complex, intricate piece of the film’s puzzle, and it can feel distracting. The more the film wears on the more its aural landscape’s significance becomes clear. Dialogue throughout the film goes from normal voices to muffled, and when the voices go quiet we often hear everyday sounds—like the scrubbing of floors—amplified. Something interesting is the dynamic between being seen v. heard. The Black characters are seen a lot, yet not always heard clearly; we get subtitles, but their voices are frequently pushed into the background.
In direct opposition, the Madam, Diane, is barely ever seen, mostly only in a photograph. Yet she’s always heard, signified by the ringing of her bell. This dynamic of being seen v. being heard further illustrates the racial, colonial dynamics at play within the house itself, something likewise reflected in the artwork and photographs in the house.
One of the first images we see in the film is art depicting Black people; not photographs, but sculptures and paintings. The art’s important because it doesn’t look like art made by Black people, rather it’s art depicting Black people and created by white folks. This racial dissonance is clear by the way the Black people in these pieces of art have exaggerated features, like overdrawn lips and eyes, so on. The artwork depicting Black people sits in contrast within the house with actual photographs of white people. Here, there’s a notion of fabricated history, in that the accepted narratives of history are depicted by the dominant culture (i.e. whiteness, heteronormativity, etc). The house’s interior becomes symbolic of colonialism’s erasure and the legacies of apartheid that keep on lingering in South Africa today.
The white woman’s home is in Constantia, an affluent Cape Town suburb, which has a Gothic racial history of Dutch colonialism and slavery. In 1961, Constantia was zoned as a White Group Area under the earlier Group Areas Act—enacted by the apartheid government of South Africa—and in the late `60s inhabitants classified as ‘coloured’ or African were forcibly removed, relocated to other areas. Diane lives inside a gated home in Constantia with a razor wire fence and a family graveyard in the back; it might as well be a prison, meant to keep people out, and to keep people in, too.
Tsidi’s family itself has been segregated by apartheid via Diane. Her brother Gcinumzi grew up around Diane’s kids, and it’s evident in several important ways. First, Gcinumzi speaks with a much more British South African accent than the African-tinged South African accents of his mother and sister. Second, he has two names: a Black name and a white name. His family calls him Gcinumzi, but he’s also called Stuart, likely because Diane and her boys didn’t want to take the time to learn how to pronounce it, as is the case for many people of colour with traditional names from their cultures. Tsidi didn’t grow up like Stuart, so the gap between them reveals how it wasn’t only the Black communities of South Africa, Black families themselves were fractured by apartheid.
“She has you living under apartheid.”
One of the more effective Gothic elements in Mlungu Wam involves the ghostly spectre of colonialism, always looming over Mavis, and Diane’s home, which eventually affects Tsidi, as well. The racism of Diane’s colonial home comes to life through the haunting of labour. In a few scenes we witness Mavis cleaning in the dark; she’s hypnotised by servitude, facilitated by the ringing of Diane’s bell. Although Mavis sees herself as part of Diane’s family, Tsidi tells her mother: “She only wants your hands and strength.” Though the comparison’s already been made—and I hate to make it because it’s a lazy comparison of two films focused on Black issues—Mlungu Wam‘s use of the ringing bell to hypnotise Black people calls to mind the similar use of hypnotism in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Tsidi eventually gets hypnotised by Diane’s bell, too. The hypnotism in Bass’s film speaks to the insidious spell of whiteness and how its effects are usually generational.
Another Gothic element in Mlungu Wam that adds weight to the horror is how Bass portrays the ghosts of apartheid haunting Diane’s home. Most significant are the graves out in the backyard. Apart from family in Diane’s family graveyard there are buried servants, going back generations. What’s chilling is the Black names are only first names or nicknames; even in death, these Black servants are denied a whole identity, framed and chiseled out by whiteness. The most unsettling Gothic quality of the graveyard is “forever” on the headstones of the Black servants, as if their ghosts have been enslaved to the property and the land itself, their spirits incapable of ever escaping to freedom—servitude beyond the grave.
There are plenty of films about racism in the history of cinema, yet the use of horror to explore themes concerning racism can be an effective way to try grappling with its real life terror. While the sound design gets a lot of attention, the film’s performances are what drive it. Chumisa Cosa, who had a hand in writing the screenplay with Bass and a bunch of others, does great work as Tsidi, a complicated character with many dimensions. In a Gothic story it’s sometimes easy to be swept up in the ghosts or whatever kind of horror a storyteller conjures. Cosa helps keep Mlungu Wam grounded with a very affective, very human performance.
Mlungu Wam may get lazily compared to Peele’s Get Out, but it’s far from being derivative, in any sense. Bass uses the Gothic to explore themes related to apartheid in South Africa, drawing off the country’s colonial history and how that colonialism continues today. Tsidi’s scary visit with her mother in Diane’s home is a tense journey. However, that journey leads to Mavis effectively reclaiming the home in which she’s lived and worked so much of her life. In the end, Diane’s relegated to a little room while those who once served her are finally able to enjoy the house for themselves, free of the ringing bell and the spell of whiteness. The white-made art depicting Black people no longer adorns the home, replaced with actual photographs of Black, smiling faces. Mavis, with the help of her daughter Tsidi, takes back land that was stolen from her people long ago, making it her own after so many years of sacrifice and servitude. Mlungu Wam is a Gothic story about racism that’s filled with terror, though one that ends full of Black joy.